Food and Drink For Members

Do Italians really hate all spicy food?

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Do Italians really hate all spicy food?
Fiery red chillies are not a common sight in Italian supermarkets - but why doesn't Italy embrace spicy cuisine? Photo by Shubha gambhir on Unsplash

Italian cuisine is - rightly - renowned, but there is one aspect that newcomers often find disappointing: the lack of spice. So what lies behind this apparent aversion?


It's one of the most common food-related questions from new arrivals: where can I find a proper curry, or some really good tacos? 

Often, there’s no satisfactory answer. It’s usually quite difficult as Italy doesn’t have the wide variety of international eateries commonly found elsewhere, and spices are used sparsely in Italian cuisine

Of course, this doesn't mean Italian food is bland - excellent produce combined with fresh olive oil and cheese provides no shortage of flavour.

But the Italian word piccante (spicy) might mean something different to you than it does to an Italian.

If you try to name Italian dishes that contain heat, you won't come up with much - with the exception of some dishes from the southern Calabria region, famous for its fiery red ‘nduja sausage made with Calabrian peperoncini piccanti, or spicy peppers (and they really are hot, rated 25,000 - 40,000 on the Scoville scale.)

There's also pasta all'arrabbiata - a speciality of the Lazio region around Rome, with a simple sauce made from tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and chilli flakes.

But such strong flavours are rare in Italian cuisine. Usually, dishes infused with herbs and spices are described instead as aromatico, which, as you can probably guess, means fragrant or aromatic rather than eye-wateringly hot.

READ ALSO: 17 ways your eating and drinking habits change when you live in Italy

Nowadays, Italy’s population of immigrants means there is a slowly increasing number of restaurants selling food from other cultures.

In Rome, Milan, and other larger cities, you can track down Indian, Thai, Chinese, Peruvian and Vietnamese restaurants - but you’ll likely find that they have toned down their spicing significantly to please delicate Italian palates.

One type of international cuisine you’ll notice is popular everywhere in Italy is sushi - and, though this is usually of good quality, fans of Japanese cuisine will find that it’s a long way from being authentic in the vast majority of cases. Still, some popular Italian sushi menu items feature mildly spicy sauces, and it makes a change from pizza. 


Another option which has become enormously popular in recent years is ramen, and it's usually pretty good: there’s no shortage of restaurants simmering homemade broth and twirling handmade noodles to impress their Italian customers. Of course, the spice level is again minimal, but can be adjusted to taste.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

The most commonly-given explanation for the general Italian aversion to international foods - and to spice - is a simple lack of exposure. Italy isn't home to a large population of people from countries where spices are commonly used, so there's not much spicy food on offer in the average small town.

Another reason is Italy's famous pride in its own cuisine. In fact, the widespread conviction that Italian food is superior to anything else has made the country slower - and some would say downright reluctant - to embrace cooking from other cultures. Even the most popular international foods are still seen by many Italians as a novelty, perhaps a fad aimed at teenagers, and few hold foreign cuisines in as high regard as traditional Italian cooking.

In a culture where food and health are so closely linked, you may also hear Italians question whether an exotic herb, spice or recipe is good for you. Many people have long-held beliefs about the purported health-giving (or otherwise) properties of all common ingredients in Italian cuisine, and how these should be combined (or not) - so anything unfamiliar may cause concern about unknown effects on digestion.


Whatever the reason, if you want to eat something so hot that it makes your eyes water, there’s a good chance you’ll have to cook it yourself.

Most common cooking spices are available in Italian supermarkets, although coriander, lemongrass, or particularly hot chillies can be hard to track down. Small grocery stores run by Indian or Chinese families are usually the best places to find these ingredients, or you could try large fresh produce markets in big cities.

Or, since the climate is perfect for it, you could always grow your own ingredients: whether on a sunny windowsill or balcony if you live in a city, or in the orto (vegetable garden) alongside your tomatoes, zucchini, basil and oregano.

After all, cooking your own food from scratch using homegrown ingredients is about as classically Italian as it gets - even if the spice level in your recipes isn't.

Can you recommend any authentic international restaurants in your Italian city? Or do you prefer cooking your own spicy dishes at home? Let us know in the comments section below.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also